SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The Fish and Wildlife Service has approved a first-time permit allowing a Native American tribe in Wyoming to kill two bald eagles in a centuries-old religious ceremony once outlawed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The step was hailed on Wednesday as a victory that honors the cultural and religious rituals practiced by the 9,600 Northern Arapahos on the Wind River Indian Reservation in west-central Wyoming.
"The eagle has been with us for so long, even before the settlers came. For the government to tell us, you can't use that bird anymore ... it slaps natives in the face," said tribal member Lokilo St. Claire.
It is almost always illegal to kill bald eagles, which were removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2007 but are still safeguarded by laws like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States and is depicted on everything from the Great Seal of the United States to the dollar bill.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees conservation of eagles, has granted very few so-called "take" permits allowing Native Americans to kill golden eagles for religious purposes, spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger said.
The permit allowing a tribal take of bald eagles is believed to be the first of its kind.
Approval for the permit for the Northern Arapaho stems from a federal lawsuit the tribe filed in November that claimed the government's ban on the taking of an eagle infringed on religious and free speech rights guaranteed to tribal members by federal law, the constitution and treaties.
The Northern Arapaho first applied to the service in October 2009 and submitted a revised application in November 2010 to harvest eagles to be used in the "sun dance," an annual summer ceremony sacred to the tribe.
It was unclear whether the lawsuit would now be withdrawn. Andrew Baldwin, attorney for the tribe, said the Northern Arapaho would seek to renew the permit each year.
The bald eagle soared back from the brink of extinction after a 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT and after protections under the Endangered Species Act in 1978.
Breeding pairs have climbed from about 400 in 1963 to an estimated 9,700 today.
The Northern Arapaho say a robust population of eagles and the fact that the service is considering an application by a wind developer in Oregon that would permit the killing of golden eagles are sufficient reasons to approve their request.
The whirring blades of wind turbines can kill eagles.
The permit was issued to the tribe on March 9 "after careful consideration," according to the service.
Groups like the American Bird Conservancy say they support giving priority to permits for public safety - near airports, for example - and tribal religious needs.
Outside of those areas, permits need to be carefully evaluated to ensure they will not reduce the still-recovering bald eagle populations, conservancy vice-president Darin Schroeder said.
The sun dance, which requires the use of eagle feathers, and other ceremonies were banned as "Indian offenses" by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1890s and it wasn't until 1934 that the government formally lifted those prohibitions, according to the Native American Rights Fund.
For the Northern Arapaho tribe's St. Claire, the bald eagle is a powerful symbol of native pride just as the sun dance is a powerful symbol of native spirituality.
"When we do take a bird, it will be treated with the utmost respect. Every part of it will be used and nothing will be wasted," he said.
The government maintains a repository for Native American tribes for feathers and other parts of eagles killed by accident or by poaching. But the demand can exceed supply and St. Claire said those articles are sometime unfit for ceremonial purposes.
"The feathers have to be in good condition - not damaged by being frozen - because they are meant to be used all through the person's life and even passed from father to son," he said.